THE WORLD-CHAMPION NOSE
By Lucy Gordan
On Thanksgiving Florentine perfumer Lorenzo Villoresi received
the François Coty prize at the Chateau d'Ertigny in the Loire Valley
and was crowned Le Roi des Nez or "The King of the Noses," surpassing all his French competitors on their home turf and at the profession
they long-boasted to be their national exclusive. In all fairness Villoresi
is not the first Italian to be awarded this prize, but the others were
multi-nationals, never before an independent perfumer.
Today fragrances (including Villoresi's) are sold all over the world in
duty-frees, department stores, and specialty shops, but perfume has a
history as ancient as Egypt, where tomb remains reveal the use of fragrant
ointments and oils. Avicenna, a 10th-century Arab physician and philosopher,
is said to have discovered the distillation process that greatly reduced
the cost of making the essential oils used in perfumery, and knowledge
of distillation spread through Europe during the Middle Ages as the Crusaders
returned with samples of Arab essences.
Lorenzo Villoresi with his son Alessandro and Henry Coty in front of a portrait of his grandfather the parfumier Francois Coty.
The first modern perfume, made of scented oils blended in an alcohol solution,
was made in 1370 at the command of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary and was
known throughout Europe as Hungary Water. The art of perfumery prospered
in Renaissance Florence -- even Leonardo da Vinci was an expert in distillation,
especially of laurel -- and in the 16th century Florentine culinary and
perfumery refinements were taken to Paris by Catherine de' Medici, the
young bride of the future French King Henry II, and her personal perfumer,
Renato Bianco. Thus France quickly became the European center of perfume
manufacture it still is today.
"The burning of incense that accompanied the religious rites of ancient
China, Palestine, and Egypt led gradually to the personal use of perfume,"
explains Lorenzo Villoresi, who in his acceptance speech compared himself
to a panda, because he too is a beast from the past who resists the frenetic
pace of modern life and the drive to be "in fashion." He considers
himself an alchemist and a disciple of both Avicenna and of fellow-Florentine
Catherine de' Medici. A 50-year-old cosmopolitan gourmet, Villoresi has
combined his love of history, travel, and spicy cuisine into the unusual
esoteric profession of perfumer.
As a post-graduate researcher in philosophy, Villoresi travelled widely
in the Far and Middle East: India, Israel, Jordan, Sinai, the Red Sea,
and Egypt. Here he felt particularly at home, undoubtedly because during
the early 1950s his parents had owned a boutique of Florentine artisanry
at King Farouk's Court.
"I still love to wander endlessly in Khartoum's Omdurman, Old Jerusalem's
and Cairo's bazaars searching for essences and spices. Cairo is the best
place in the world to learn about perfume production," explains Villoresi,
who began his career concocting fragrances first as a hobby for friends
and then for Fendi (scented candles), Armani, and Trussardi. Now, although
his products for the home and bath are sold at London's Fortnum &
Mason, New York's Bergdorf and Barney's, San Francisco's Gumps, and Isetan
in Tokyo, Villoresi prefers to create personalized or "signature" perfumes.
Starting at around $150, usually Villoresi's one-of-a-kind fragrances
cost only a little bit more than a brand name and the formula -- a secret -- remains
exclusive to its wearer. Some essences, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, sandalwood
oils, and citrus flavors are quite inexpensive. The most precious essence -- and
therefore perfumes made with it -- is iris root, which at $35,000 per kilo is more
valuable than gold.
Villoresi has counted among his 400 regular clients Jackie Kennedy Onasis,
supermodel Linda Evangelista, fashion designer Roberto Capucci, Cherie
Blair, Sting, Jodorowky, and Madonna. Most people come alone and in one
sitting choose summer, winter, morning and evening fragrances; only 5%
come as couples, though everyone's common goal is "sexual attraction."
"When Catherine de' Medici left Florence for France in the 1550s,
and introduced the art of making perfumes to the French, the most popular
fragrance was woodbine, a fragrant honeysuckle flower: every Florentine
wore it," says Villoresi, whose older sister Cristina offers week-long
cooking courses at the family's splendidly-frescoed 28-room Hotel Villa
Villoresi, a Renaissance country house six miles northwest of Florence (Via
Ciampi 2, Colonnata di Sesto Fiorentino, 50019, tel. 011-39-055-443212,
FAX 011-39-055-442063, e-mail: email@example.com or ILAVilloresi@ila-chateau.com),
where Lorenzo creates his pot-pourri and home essences, "my way to
help you personalize your environment."
"During the Renaissance it was relatively easy to make a perfume.
Now it's different. People want to distinguish themselves with a unique
perfume -- something designed not only as a personal statement but also
as a mood enhancer." Since 1989 Lorenzo Villoresi has dreamed up
his scents in an attic with a breath-taking view over the Arno and Renaissance
Florence. Surrounded by some 1,000 small colored bottles bearing such intriguing
labels as "sea breeze," "freshly cut grass" and "damp
hay," with his charming wife Ludovica he begins by asking about his
client's favorite smells. Then there is the sniffing session. "The
power of smell is really incredible" he explains. "Lots of memories
and emotions can be evoked by a particular essence. My nose or the client's
nose is not the end-all and the be-all. A perfume is born in the brain."
This complex olfactory psychoanalysis lasts an average of two to three
hours and usually costs around $1,200 (960 Euros) including "your very own"
perfume. The quantity of each essence is then carefully recorded in a
personal file, making reorders simple.
"An Arab emir once asked me for a fragrance that evoked a horse at
full gallop. However, the most unusual request I ever created," Villoresi
chuckles, "was for an English lady who wanted to immortalize the
scent of her recently deceased beloved dog. I must have been successful
because as soon as she left all the stray dogs in the neighborhood started
howling and following her down the street."
When creating a personal perfume, Villoresi usually blends 30 to 40 essences
of the 100 or so sniffed. "Combining essences is like composing music,"
he explains. "A perfume is created from different notes that take
some time to play out. It is like a symphony, but I don't make your perfume.
You use me to make the perfume you want. It is very personal and reflects
who you are, who you think you are, and who you would like to be. No other
person does exactly what I do."
Centifolia rose petals selected for perfume production
For an appointment at Via Bardi 14, Florence, phone -39-055-2341187, FAX
-39-55-2345893, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. In addition to his custom frangrances, you can now purchase some of Villoresi's over-the-counter perfumes, pot-pourri, lotions and soaps from websites, if you google Lorenzo Villoresi. His newest, "ALAMUT," launched
at the end of 2006 in a ruby red crystal bottle with a sterling silver label and
top, has a sumptuous Oriental scent of rare and precious woods, Tonkin
Musk, and amber.
Starting later this year you'll be able to visit and study at Villoresi's latest
brainchild: The Perfume Academy, which will open in a Renaissance palace
not far from his laboratory. In addition to courses and seminars offered
by the world's greatest "nez," it will include
a perfume museum, a "perfume laboratory," a garden of tropical
plants, and a small hammam.
Before leaving Florence, another must for perfume-lovers is the beautifully-frescoed
Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella at Via della Scala 16r, -39-055-216276.
In this ethereal setting, Dominican fathers still produce perfume and
other beauty products, including lotions for every skin type, according
to their order's Renaissance formulas. Not to mention Antica Farmacia
di San Marco at Via Cavour 146, tel. -39-055-210604, also founded in the
15th century, with its vaulted frescoed ceilings and rows of majolica
jars. Their specifics include an anti-hysteric popular with English
expatriate ladies during the 19th century, and excellent rose water and
eaux de cologne.
Then, to learn still more about the history of perfume and its production,
follow in the footsteps of a certain Renato Tombarelli, a Florentine chemist,
like Bianco, in Catherine de' Medici's entourage. He settled in Grasse
and, in part, thanks to his initiative, this charming and peaceful town
nestled in the hills above Cannes on the French Riviera has become the
modern perfume capital of the world.
Preparing roses for distillation
Pressing rose petals to extract the essence
Nicknamed "the city of flowers," its omnipresent fragrances
and flowers are celebrated twice a year: at the Rose Expo during the last
week of May and August's Jasmine Festival. During the rest of the year
four of Grasse's 30 perfume factories offer hour-long guided tours during
which the techniques of perfume-making are explained. For more indepth
study, at the International Perfumery Museum (Place du Cours 8, tel. 011-33-93-368020,
Open everyday, except public holidays, between June 1 and September 30
from 10AM-7PM; and from 10AM-noon and 2-5 PM October 1-May 31, except
closed Mondays, Tuesdays, public holidays and the month of November) all
the secrets of perfume are revealed: from the processing of raw materials
|Marie Antoinette's traveling beauty case (International Perfume Museum, Grasse
museum's very own greenhouse (creation of essences, distillation,
extraction) to the production of perfume itself. On display are a rare
collection of antique utensils and perfume bottles from ancient Egypt
to the present, including Marie Antoinette's travel case. The nearby Fragonard
(Boulevard Fragonard 23, tel. 001-33-93360161) and Molinard Museums (Boulevard
Victor Hugo 60, tel. 011-33-93-360162, FAX: 011-33-93-360391) both have
fine collections of bottles, labels, and documents on the history of perfumery
through the ages. Fragonard is the elegant 17th-century country house
the famous court painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and Molinard's
offers two different courses: Studio Volatile and Studio
Fixateur to measure your aptitude for becoming un nez or a nose. For a hands-on experience, after a tour of the Parfumerie Galimard,
you can create your own personal fragrance and receive a certificate as "Honorary Master Perfumer." It's great fun even if your nose
is not up to Villoresi's sniff!